From the beginning God intended that people care for one another. When the Lord asked Cain of Abel’s whereabouts, Cain retorted with a question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer then and now is a resounding “Yes!” All of us are called to be “keepers” of our brothers and sisters, but some of us have a greater responsibility than others in this area because we have been called to be overseers in the local church as pastors and elders or overseers of associations of churches as apostles and prophets. Today I want to give you an overview of what oversight entails and encourage you to accept this responsibility as a joyful privilege.
What It Means Generally to Be a Keeper of God’s People
God has many names that reveal His nature, but my favorite is “The Lord is my Keeper”. This word encompasses so many things – protector, provider, shepherd, and lover of my soul. Psalm 121 reveals that God is our always alert Keeper. Keep in mind that New Covenant believers are the present day spiritual descendants of Abraham.
Behold, He who keeps Israel Will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper; The LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun will not smite you by day, Nor the moon by night. The LORD will protect you from all evil; He will keep your soul. The LORD will guard your going out and your coming in From this time forth and forever. Psalms 121:4-8 (NASB)
The idea here is that God faithfully watches over, guides, provides for, and protects his people without ceasing. Here are a couple of verses that use this same Hebrew word for “keeper”.
Preserve me, O God, for I take refuge in You. Psalms 16:1 (NASB)
For the LORD loves justice And does not forsake His godly ones; They are preserved forever, But the descendants of the wicked will be cut off. Psalms 37:28 (NASB)
God is our Keeper because it is an aspect of His being. No one forces Him to perform this service. It springs from His loving heart. He sent the Holy Spirit to fill us with the same love for one another that He has for us.
And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5:5
To be called by God as a keeper of His flock is a joyful privilege because it means we get to share His heart of love for His people. Our keeping or shepherding of God’s people means we love them enough to help them keep God’s Word and remain faithful to Him. God’s blessings and freedom are fulfilled in those who keep His Word and ways.
Wait for the LORD and keep His way, And He will exalt you to inherit the land; When the wicked are cut off, you will see it. Psalms 37:34
When we assist people to obey God, we become “helpers of their joy”, which also increases ours.
Being a keeper is a family thing, too. Husbands keep their wives. Mothers and fathers keep their children. Older siblings keep their younger brothers and sisters when all are young. Once we become adults, we all help to keep one another. The church is the family of God. The Lord keeps us and expects us to keep one another as well. Jesus called this loving one another.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. John 13:34
This is a call for all of us to be involved in one another’s lives to the extent that we can effectively perform this joyful duty. I call it joyful because it leads to joy in both the keeper and the kept, though for the moment it can be difficult. It is not easy to confront people who do not want to be confronted or help people who do not wish to be helped. Often when we most need help is when we least desire to receive it. But if we are to be true to one another, we will speak the truth to one another in love. That is what parenting is all about, and that is often what it means to keep our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NASB)
Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Heb. 3:12-13
We do what is best for people because we love them, even if it is unpleasant or misinterpreted or even resented for the moment. Being a keeper is not for the faint of heart or for the emotionally wounded. Our own weaknesses and failings will unfortunately be highlighted as we work with others in this area. It will become clear that we must allow the Lord to fulfill his keeping ministry in our own lives so that we can be more effective at helping others. Now that we have established that we all have a general responsibility to keep one another, let’s talk about the more specific duty overseers have to keep the members of a local church.
What Oversight Is Not
Before describing what oversight in the church entails, it may be best to quickly say what it is not. First of all, the Bible makes it clear that being in oversight does not allow us to “lord it over” other human beings. Paul made this clear in his second letter to the church at Corinth.
Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm. 2 Corinthians 1:24 (NASB)
Although many people prefer to have others make decisions for them or impose rigid rules upon them, this has nothing to do with spiritual oversight at all. In fact, we must wean people from their dependency upon human leadership if we are to help them grow to maturity. Dominating others will never produce joy in them. Instead it demoralizes and discourages them because they realize they are neither valued nor respected. Shepherding God’s people God’s way is to lead them into a maturing relationship with God and other Christians. As we help others to know God’s love, understand His Word, trust His promises and obey His commands and voice, they will become more and more joyful. Joy is a byproduct of becoming a faith-filled and mature child of God who can take responsibility and accomplish meaningful tasks in the Kingdom of God.
“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. John 15:8-11 (NASB)
Joy is connected to knowing we are loved and respected and to being able to function responsibly and productively in meaningful endeavors. God chose to include us in governing at His side as co-regents with Christ because He understands that this is a way to full joy.
A parent ultimately succeeds by teaching and training his or her child to be a responsible and successful self-governing adult. Likewise, a church overseer’s goal is to produce mature and wise disciples who are capable of living wisely and confidently under God’s loving direction. So, oversight is never oppressive in nature or controlling in practice.
Secondly, oversight in the local church is never self-serving. Leaders in the Kingdom of God are first of all servants. This means we wait on others instead of expecting them to serve us. This means that we are helpers and equippers and supporters of those we oversee. This means that we will be most fulfilled and satisfied when those under our care are able to fully function in their own ministries and callings. Our responsibility is to equip and launch others, not keep them perpetually dependent upon us because of some dysfunctional need to be needed. It is better to be appreciated for helping another person grow up in God than to be forever needed by a perpetually immature person.
What Oversight Is
The responsibility for oversight in the local church is carried mainly by the eldership; although, this duty can be shared by others in the flock such as leaders of small groups. I will limit myself to the eldership in the local church in this message, which also includes the lead elder or pastor. When speaking of associations of churches, the oversight responsibilities are carried mainly by apostles and prophets.
If we use 1 Timothy 3:1-7 as our text, the first thing we learn is that it is okay to desire to be an elder.
It is a true saying that if someone wants to be an elder, he desires an honorable responsibility 1 Timothy 3:1 (NLT)
However, it is important that such an “honorable responsibility” be sought for the right reasons. If pride or self-aggrandizement is the basis for such a desire, it is an improper motivation, but if a person wants to serve God and the church through oversight, it can be a blessing to all.
Now let’s look at several aspects or components of oversight. The word comes from the Greek “episkopos” which simply means to watch over. This is definitely not rocket science.
1. Exemplary Living. The old saw is that actions speak louder than words. Paul wrote to Timothy that a candidate for eldership must have lived a life that “cannot be spoken against” or that is without reproach.
For an elder must be a man whose life cannot be spoken against. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exhibit self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home and must be able to teach. He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, peace loving, and not one who loves money. He must manage his own family well, with children who respect and obey him. For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? An elder must not be a new Christian, because he might be proud of being chosen so soon, and the Devil will use that pride to make him fall. Also, people outside the church must speak well of him so that he will not fall into the Devil’s trap and be disgraced. 1 Tim 3:2-7
This does not mean that we never experience criticism. Paul warned us that holy living will result in persecution. When we are on the front lines, the enemy shoots at us from all sides. In fact, our Lord told us to beware when all men speak well of us. However, it is important that there be no scandalous reason for such an attack. The Greek word for scandal means “a stumbling block”. A leader’s life should not cause another person to get tripped up or offended.
We can list some of the components of exemplary living found in the First Timothy passage.
• Faithfulness to his wife
• Wise living
• No substance abuse
• No anger problems
• No debt problems
• Not causing strife
- Not a newbie
- Having a good reputation in the community for godly living
- No disrespect at home
- We lead by example before we lead in any other way since we can only impart to others what God has given to us.
Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. 1 Peter 4:10
This is why elders must be chosen from those who have exemplary behavior and character. Such high standards should not intimidate us. God does not demand perfection, only surrender. This is a joyful opportunity for us to take God’s Word seriously. We all need motivation to live for God, and being held to a higher standard can work in our behalf. For those who are already overseers, we must seek grace to live by these standards because our lives are being observed by others. What we allow, the people will excuse. Once again, it is more important to be sincere, surrendered and transparent than it is to be perfect. People will be intimidated or put off by anyone who pretends to be without fault, but they will be drawn toward honesty and humility. People need to know that their leaders struggle, too, but with faith and determination.
The threat of God’s discipline should also help to motivate overseers to live holy lives.
Do not listen to complaints against an elder unless there are two or three witnesses to accuse him. Anyone who sins should be rebuked in front of the whole church so that others will have a proper fear of God. 1 Timothy 5:19-20 (NLT)
Our lives will be examples to the flock in one way or another. Let’s be good examples of what it means to be a Christian rather than a warning of what happens to the disobedient. This too is an opportunity for joy. Unholy living always brings sadness, loss and destruction. We can rejoice that God holds us to a stricter judgment because that will help to increase the fear of the Lord in our lives which will help keep us from sin, which, in turn, will bring us greater joy.
2. Teaching. Oversight requires that we be familiar with God’s Word and able to share it with others in a way that will provide understanding, correction and encouragement.
For an elder must be a man whose life cannot be spoken against. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exhibit self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home and must be able to teach. 1 Timothy 3:2 (NLT)
This means an overseer must be a student of the Bible and be a living example of the truths and principles therein. If a man is not familiar with God’s Word and able to communicate sound doctrine, he should not be considered for oversight. There are a lot of good men who keep themselves from consideration and ministry because they will not invest the time to learn God’s Word, which is a great shame and something for which they will have to answer to God. This does not mean that an elder must have the gift of teaching or be good in the pulpit, however.
3. Accountability. Teachers of God’s Word are held to a tighter accountability than others as least partly because of the importance of our lives agreeing with the written word. Otherwise we are teaching those we shepherd that it is not important to actually obey God. Being accountable works in conjunction with and adds to exemplary living. When we make ourselves accountable to others, it allows us to be refined by what others bring to the table. Therefore, elders must be willing to submit themselves to accountable relationships. I believe it is healthy for those in oversight to be transparent with one another for the sake of personal growth and integrity. If a person refuses to be honest and open about his struggles, he should be not considered for oversight.
4. Caring. Overseers in God’s House care for/shepherd the sheep.
And now beware! Be sure that you feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his blood—over whom the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders. Acts 20:28 (NLT)
Shepherding includes feeding, nurturing, protecting and healing.
• Feeding involves teaching God’s Word to people.
But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, `People need more than bread for their life; they must feed on every word of God.’ ” Matthew 4:4 (NLT)
• Nurturing is more associated with coming alongside people gentle, patient and understanding way. Paul said that he cared for the Thessalonian church as a mother would for her children.
As apostles of Christ we certainly had a right to make some demands of you, but we were as gentle among you as a mother feeding and caring for her own children. We loved you so much that we gave you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too. 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8 (NLT)
• Protecting God’s people means we must put ourselves between them and the enemy. This puts overseers in a position of being attacked, but God’s strength is sufficient. We always tell our new overseers, pastors and worship leaders that they have a big target on them. We must keep them in our prayers and be alert to any schemes of the devil. Enemies come from within and from outside. Paul warned the Ephesian elders.
I know full well that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. Even some of you will distort the truth in order to draw a following. Watch out! Remember the three years I was with you—my constant watch and care over you night and day, and my many tears for you. Acts 20:29-31 (NLT)
ï Healing involves personal prayer ministry and a long-term commitment. Bringing healing and restoration to people is at the heart of Jesus’ ongoing ministry through His church. He launched His own public ministry by quoting Isaiah 61:1, and that focus has never changed.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, Luke 4:18 (NIV)
Shepherds must get emotionally involved with people and spend time with them. This means we must get our hands dirty with their problems and take the time to help them become the people God has called them to be. It means we must understand and rely on the grace of God to accomplish in the Lord’s people what only He can do.
And now I entrust you to God and the word of his grace—his message that is able to build you up and give you an inheritance with all those he has set apart for himself. Acts 20:32 (NLT)
Caring leaders cannot afford to become critical or unbelieving towards the congregation. Their faith must sometimes help carry those who are struggling.
5. Correction. People need to be corrected, and overseers often get the job.
Preach the word of God. Be persistent, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. 2 Timothy 4:2 (NLT)
This is another reason it is so important that elders live exemplary and accountable lives. Otherwise their words will be hollow and their authority weakened. Remember people will follow you example more than your words.
6. Counsel. People need personal guidance, and some more than others. Counsel is the direct and personal application of God’s Word to our lives. It takes a good knowledge of the Bible coupled with wisdom and life experience to be a good counselor. The only other ingredients that are absolutely essential are compassion and faith. We must truly love those we counsel and must believe that God can do wonderful things in their lives.
The goal of the counselor is to work himself out of a job. We must always be leading others to hear God for themselves rather than become dependent upon us.
7. Leadership. Overseers lead the church in order to set a good example, give direction and inspire. We must lead people into a deeper relationship with God and into greater faith and obedience. We must lead them to reach out to the lost and hurting and to give generously. We must lead them to share their faith boldly and to use their gifts and fulfill their calling. As we do what God has called us to do and allow others to come alongside, they will learn to hear and obey God for themselves. Therefore, overseers must be accessible and inclusive.
8. Trans-generational. Leadership and oversight are all about passing the baton to the next generation. When we get to be really good at something, it is time to help others do likewise. A leader has come full circle when he or she prepares and launches into service disciples who do what he or she formerly did. In other words, overseers in the church need to become spiritual parents and grand parents. If we do a good job at discipling, equipping, launching and supporting those we oversee, one day we will sit on the side lines and applaud our disciples. This will bring great joy to all – joy to the new leaders, joy to those who see how it all works and joy to us because of a job well-done.
Implications for the Local Church
We should choose men for oversight who are able to transition the church to the next generation and avoid those who are stuck in the past. The joy of oversight is directly related to the development and functioning of our disciples. Overseers must be progressive when it comes to generational thinking. Older Christians must lay aside what pleases them if it stands in the way of moving the church into a better position to impact the younger generations. The church must be aimed at the present and future generations while appreciating what God has done in the past. This will allow us to better navigate times of uncertainty and change because we will be sure of our motives and goals.
Oversight in the local church and over groups of churches is a joyful privilege. Joy comes from participating with Christ in shepherding God’s people. Joy is shared with our people when our oversight inspires them to grow in faith and maturity in Christ and to reach their full potential. Joy is fulfilled here on earth when we successfully disciple those who become the next generation of leaders and overseers. Joy will be completed when we hear our Savior say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”